Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A practical fascination with tech

I've had a computer around me for much of my life, starting in high school with an Apple IIe. I wanted dearly to play with that computer more and learn more about programming, but it was not for me. It was for my dad who became addicted to playing military simulations from SSI. The game and the computer were advertised as the $2000 wargame in Scientific American. I did manage to get some time in playing in Apple Basic, but Dad was there most of the time, playing until his fingers got numb.

I had the bug from that point on. Not as a programmer, but as someone curious about tech. Maybe I got the bug from the little box radio my parents bought for me for Christmas or for my birthday when I was 5. The radio turned on when I pulled it open and when I closed it, it turned off. That was the first electronic technology that I ever had. It was transistor technology that was still about 15 years old, just smaller due to advances from the space program.

As I grew up, I was the one to figure out how to program the VCR when we got one. I figured out the cable system and the remote controls. Whenever the family got new tech, or some shiny new gadget, I was at the ready to read the manual and set it up.

As a young adult, I always had a computer in my abode. I started with the C64 from Commodore, a computer I bought from my sister. At the time, I did not seriously consider programming (why bother when I was going to be a sheetmetal worker, anyway?), but I learned enough to know how to run the computer and run applications I wanted to use, mostly games. Then I found that I wanted something to help me balance my checkbook. But on the C64, it was all command line, and I really wasn't ready for that.

I did some shopping and found the PC and the Amiga. I hated the PC already and fell in love with the Amiga. I didn't even consider the Mac. I really don't know why. But the Amiga had a certain appeal to me. I liked the colors I guess and the Mac was still in black and white then. I spent about 4 years on the Amiga 500 and 3000 before I finally succumbed to the market and bought a used Macbook. It was an Apple Powerbook 145b, I think.

Sometime in 1997, I got a windows machine, because I just tired of the slow, clunky, black and white Mac. I laughed when I went shopping for software and found so much to choose from. I was running Windows 95 and somewhat happier at that point. Then I got an upgrade to Windows 98. That was OK, too.

But the turning point for me came when I took classes in Windows NT. Then I learned how to install an operating system. I started to think of computers as commodities rather than something that I just used. Once I began to see the hard drive as a mutable, flexible storage appliance for my operating environment, applications and data that I create, my attitude towards computers changed.

From that time on, I began to see that I had choices. I had choices, that at the time were limited to Windows. That was around 1999. In 2001, I bought my first copy of Red Hat. I downloaded a copy of Gentoo Linux and spent the night trying to get it to run. I did a lot of experimentation from about 2001 to 2007. I had developed an interest in Linux.

Linux has done for me what Windows steadfastly refused to do: let me control my computer. Linux gave me the freedom to use different file formats, new desktop concepts like virtual desktops, and a command line shell that I can actually use, Bash. I started again with Ubuntu and ordered a free CD. I had a Windows computer and managed to find a spare for cheap from work. Once I installed Linux on the spare computer, the exploration got deeper, much more interesting.

By 2007, I always had a Windows computer and a Linux computer running side by side. By using Windows and Linux side by side, I saw what I needed and what I didn't need. I started setting priorities and found that for the most part, browser, office and music, Linux did the job. I was at the precipice, ready to make the leap.

Then in the summer of 2007, with my fiance at my side, I decided to use only Linux and never look back. I wanted to see how long I could go without windows. Eventually, my wife said, "When the antivirus expires on my computer, set me up with Linux." Since then, we have been a Linux house.

The difference between Linux and Windows that is important to me is more philosophical than technical, since many of the concepts used in general purpose computing can be found in both. Both have windowing metaphors, both have a command line, both have file systems and networking. But Linux has something that Windows does not: a philosophy that says that one user on a multiuser system cannot destroy the work of another user. Linux is a true multi-user system and is built to run on networks. Windows was not built that way but it is made to do so, begrudgingly.

There is another difference in philosophy that I would like to point out. While Windows says "This is it. There is nothing more to see beyond this desktop," Linux says, "Hey, check out what you can do with Bash, Python, Perl and Java. Try out KDE, Gnome, XFCE or any number of desktops and distributions. There is something for everyone here."

Most kids today don't know how to install an operating system. They tend to take technology at face value. But there is a lesson to be learned from general purpose computers. General purpose computers are pliable, malleable, and can be made to do what we want them to do. Having a spare computer around for exploration and experimentation is great for the kids, if that is the direction they want to go.

I'm raising two kids now. I see that in the not too distant future, attempts will be made to eliminate the general purpose computer, but they will not be completely successful. There will always be a clean slate to work with in a PC chassis. CPU, motherboard, storage, networking and display will all be there. As long as the storage can be wiped and a new operating system can be installed, I will be there, teaching my kids about how computers work.

This is not to say that I'm going to push that on them, but I believe that anyone who works with computers should know something about how they work. From installing an operating system, to backing up your files, to installing applications and basic networking, we should at least know how to do that if we're going to use them. It's not too much to ask of our schools and of parents.

To me, my fascination with tech has had many practical uses and has given me the freedom to use the tech I want to use when I want to use it. When I look beyond Windows, I see many wonderful and useful choices. I hope you do, too.
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